Irish Government did secret deal with Gerry Adams to free IRA prisoners days after 1994 ceasefire, declassified file reveals

Gerry Adams privately asked the Irish government in 1994 for 11 IRA prisoners to get preferential treatment, and an apparent deal was done on that basis, declassified files reveal.

Tuesday, 29th December 2020, 11:05 am
Gerry Adams' request was revealed to the NIO by top Irish government official Tim Dalton

Days after the IRA ceasefire announced on August 31, 1994, two of the British and Irish government’s most senior civil servants met discreetly to pass on information about how they were handling the new dispensation.

The meeting between NIO permanent secretary Sir John Chilcott and Timothy Dalton, the top official in the Irish Department of Justice, was part of what would become a long-running engagement between the two men which was known about in the 1990s.

However, much of the detail of what was discussed in their meetings was not released due to its ultra-sensitive nature.

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Now, in a document declassified today at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year-rule, considerable detail about one of those meetings can be revealed and it indicates that the Irish government effectively negotiated with the IRA, which gave certain “undertakings” if prisoners were treated more favourably.

A five-page confidential memo sent on September 19, 1994 conveyed what had been discussed by Sir John and Mr Dalton at the meeting three days earlier.

On several occasions in the memo, Sir John asked for it to be treated with particular care because of the sensitivity of what it contained.

He said that one of the main topics which Mr Dalton wanted to discuss was prisoners, telling the NIO man that “there would be a review of republican prisoners’ cases with a view to marginal easement in their earliest date of release”.

Sir John said “he was at pains to say that there would not be an amnesty nor anything so described, and they would not be ‘overly generous’”, in part “because of comparisons with ordinary criminal prisoners”.

He suggested that remission may be increased from a quarter to a half “which might enable perhaps as many as 14 paramilitary prisoners in the south to be released by about Christmas time (out of a population of a little over 80) but there would be no announcement of it – it would simply happen.”

He also said that there was likely to be a review of the life sentence prison population – which included three IRA members.

Sir John said: “He also added (please protect especially) that Adams had requested the Irish government for special dispensation in respect of 11 prisoners (he did not specify as between fixed term prisoners and lifers) who should be given particular consideration – although he emphasised there was no expectation of immediate or very early release.

“I was given to understand that in return for this ‘generosity’ the Provisional IRA had given undertakings regarding full cooperation within prisons with the regime, an end to attempts to smuggle in arms and other objects, while on the government’s side it was likely that minor regime improvements would take place such as the provision of colour televisions in cells”.

Sir John said that he made clear that “it was not thinkable or acceptable, to the government and Westminster, that there would be any interference in the due process of justice regarding sentences to be served.”

One problem in fully analysing the memo is that only the British government’s memo on the meeting has been released. Due to the Irish government now being increasingly out of date with its document releases — which are now many years behind the UK’s — it is not clear what Sir John told Mr Dalton and which the Irish official presumably fed back into the Irish governmental system.

Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell, himself a critical figure in the decade from 1997 onwards, described Mr Dalton in his memoir as “a charming roly-poly, quietly spoken security expert who was to play a crucial role in the negotiations”.

Sir John’s memo also sets out Mr Dalton’s view that the Irish government had belatedly come to believe that the IRA posed a far bigger threat to the southern state than it had previously anticipated.

The NIO permanent secretary said: “Tim Dalton said that there was a move taking place in the Irish government’s attitude as they came to realise on advice from the Garda Siochana and the Department of Justice that the historical softline in terms of previous violent republican campaigns could no longer hold given the Libyan arms shipments and threat that the holdings of Semtex, heavy weapons, etc, presented to the Irish state not least in their leakage into ordinary criminal use.”

Sir John said he welcomed that new approach, telling him that “it was very much in our mutual interest to share as much information and intelligence as possible about stocks and stores of weapons and matériel and to take a realistic view of, for example, token offers of surrender which had no material bearing on the real capabilities of the republican movement”.

In late 1994, the Irish authorities released nine IRA prisoners on licence.

Documents declassified two years ago at the Public Record Office revealed SDLP leader John Hume’s private concern at that development, with him telling Sir John in a private meeting that he was concerned by the speed of the releases and he believed that prisoner releases “were all things that needed to be settled down the road”.

The IRA then broke its ceasefire before reinstating it in 1997. Within weeks of that second ceasefire, the Irish authorities gave early release to five IRA prisoners who were serving sentences in Portlaoise Prison in the Republic of Ireland. Three months later, The Irish Times reported that nine further IRA prisoners would be released from the same jail.

l For more from the declassified files, see tomorrow’s News Letter

Declassification delayed by Covid

The declassified files on which the News Letter reports today and over coming days, have been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter where (once the current Covid restrictions are relaxed) anyone can go to view the original documents.

As the old 30-year rule for declassifications is cut to 20 years, one year of files is being released each six months – although none were released in August due to Covid.

Less files have been released this time – 604 files – than would usually be the case, again due to the pandemic and the difficulties which PRONI staff faced over recent months. Of those files, 154 have only been partially opened and a further 35 files remain fully closed, most of which relate to the Kinsale gas project.

The files are released based on the year in which they were closed — in this case, 1997 — but such files may contain documents which go back several years or a stray file from much earlier.

Tomorrow will see files at The National Archives in Kew — which holds most of the Whitehall documentation — declassified.

MORE FROM THE DECLASSIFEID FILES:

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